When you reach a certain stage in your life you can see from here to there. Maybe it’s a road that stretches out in front of you as a straight line, maybe it opens up to you as one of the Great Plains,but there’s no denying it, the horizon, it keeps getting bigger. You can’t fight it nor can you change it. It just is what it is and I know how it goes. There’ll be more phone calls in the middle of the night, there’ll be more goodbyes. There’ll be more tough decisions and more days when you have no idea how you ended up here at all. And when you look back the only thought you have is; What was I thinking? I was so in over my head.
But here we are, there’s nothing to it. Don’t think you’re special, don’t think it hasn’t all happened before. And if I get any notions you know what I do? I crank it up high. I fill it up to the brim. I polish my discarded dancing shoes. It goes something like this: To the left – step one, step two, and together. To the other side, do it with me now…step one, step two and …together. And then I press restart.
It was one of those typically English summer evenings when the air was thick with roses and the sky burnt a pink horizon. There might have even been a fox screeching somewhere. I was sitting in front of the television sipping a gin & tonic as the sun went down over Glastonbury. Or it could have been Reading, hardly matters, I do festivals like most other middle-aged people do. Sitting comfortably. 1975 took to the stage and I remember thinking: Now there’s a band of 4 scrawny kids from Birmingham playing just the kind of infectious rock’n’pop that will end up directly on to the pages of this blog. So here it is, 1975 with their biggest hit “Girls”. That night spent in front of a sea of festival flags coincided with me finishing “31 Songs” by Nick Hornby, a book of essays based on his favourite songs. The book is kind of like this blog, except way better. (National Book Critics Circle Award winning better in fact.) In the beginning of the book he makes it clear he does not want to write about songs as memories. No walks down memory lane about what he was doing when Rod Stewart was asking if he was sexy on the radio. (Kids, look it up, it’s a song. I was in Italy and it was the summer of ’79.) Whereas I definitely don’t filter the songs here through memories either, reading “31 Songs” made me realise I definitely filter a lot of songs through a decade. Ironic as Matt Healy & Co are called 1975 but seriously, does anyone else hear Howard Jones on “Girls?” Or do I have a box of 80s crayons and I just keep colouring in?
I don’t remember most of the episode nor the events leading up to it. All I remember is Adam Driver sitting on a bench somewhere in New York (or was it even him?) as the dusk was settling on the horizon. I was recently binge watching “Girls”, and as much as I liked the series, what I really walked away with was a song. Lena Dunham had asked twin duo Tegan and Sara to cover the Rolling Stones ballad “Fool to Cry” for the show. To be fair, I had no idea it was a Stones cover until I did some digging around. (“Girls” soundtracks are a slam dunk of brilliance by the way with Robyn, Fleet Foxes, Icona Pop, Jake Bugg… all masterminded by music supervisor Manish Ravel who’s a real wizard in setting music to mood.) I don’t know if it says more about Mick & Keith (Fool to Cry was originally recorded for the Rolling Stones 1976 album “Black and Blue”) or the brilliance of Tegan and Sara, but the sweet simple melody fell like soothing rain at the end of quite a heart-rending episode. The melting harmonies, the light guitar, the weary lyrics of apprehension, all end up as a surprisingly consoling piece of music. Like a deep exhale after a long day. Or a warm hug after an even longer year.
I cannot sleep. Kate Bush is wading a dream. Slow motion worlds falling. Transcending. Love floating. Tears hiding. Memories rising. Future shifting. Softly, softly, feet don’t touch the ground. I close my eyes and I keep falling. Falling with the music drifting. I know all about snow. Stinging my face. Out of the grayness. Coming at me as I spin. And my mother is there, waiting. The music repeats in circles. Stirring undercurrents like engines. Repeating like the heart. I almost catch it…and then lose it again. Then I feel it reverberating. Dimming, fading…gone.
Kate Bush cannot be explained. She defies words. Convention does not apply. Tomorrow she returns live on stage after 35 years. This is what happened to me when I plunged in to “Snowflake”, the opening track on 50 Words for Snow. In the middle of the night, I could not sleep. Then I listened. Your words may not be the same as mine. And there lies the beautiful mystery. She always knows where you want to go.
One thing La Roux decidedly isn’t is young, foolish and green (it’s a touching lyric in her new single Let me Down Gently). It was five years ago La Roux won a Grammy, had world-wide hits with In For The Kill and Bulletproof and was a red-headed Annie Lennox re-incarnate with an 80s new wave quiff and a sound to match. Then it all went silent. For f-i-v-e years. It’s a touch of self mocking irony the new album is called Trouble in Paradise. For La Roux it seemed to be a case of be careful what you wish for. After the success of the hit filled debut album, Elly split with her songwriting partner, (the other part of La Roux, Ben Langmaid) suffered debilitating panic attacks and lost her ability to sing. As she says in an interview with the Guardian: “I thought my career was over.” Whatever those troubles were, they seem a long-lost memory now. Elly Jackson is back! And she is just as seductively Annie, although a bit softer in the emotionally charged Let Me Down Gently. The tone is muted, but the spirit is as blazing as the red bullet of hair charging through the foggy moors in the elegant video. I heard someone describe Let me Down gently as forlorn, but I don’t hear the sadness. Only courage in the face of inevitability. He has already decided to leave.
Maybe you remember a couple of years ago when Foster The People had a monster of a summer hit with Pumped Up Kicks, a naggingly catchy pop breeze that took over the airwaves from LA to London and round the world again. (I remember a particularly hot summer night dancing around to it on repeat, and yes, there may have been some vino involved.) Well, I have just found this year’s Pumped Up Kicks and it comes courtesy of the Australian space cadets Empire of the Sun. Such is the greatness of their feel good electro tunes, that I don’t even care they’ve come up with some Captain Fantastic type names and pretend to be from some planet where they seem to spend most of their time hammering out swanky head-gear and fighting off an evil King of Shadows to save the world. (The new album has some cockamamie premise of lost jewels and animal spirit priests, or some such nonsense. Concept albums and theatrics make me yawn whilst simultaneously rolling my eyes.) However, the lead single “Alive” makes me want to live on that planet where I can shout into the light blue electric “Love you every minute cause you make me feel so alive…alive!” whilst dodging sun rays reflecting off Luke Steel’s impressive steel crown. Oh, it’s beautiful there. The horizon is as wide and blue as the sea. There’s a whole album of this happiness, of these euphoric and glitzy electro floor fillers. “I don’t wanna be so complicated” Luke Steel sings on “Concert Pitch” and I think that pretty much sums it up. “Ice On The Dune” album is full of happy pop, made for long summer nights and even longer summer holidays. Someone called this a Bacardi Breezer of an album. A perfect analogy.
Jamie Cullum is Britain’s biggest selling jazz artist of all time. I was one of the millions seduced by his pop pixie looks and accessible white T-Shirts and jeans demeanour and I saw him live at Royal Albert Hall. He is a demon at the piano. He tickles, slams, bangs and creates runs like I’ve never seen before. But he also holds the quiet in the palm of the audience, inhabits the sound. His new album Momentum is perhaps a bit more poppy than his previous efforts. If you listen carefully you can hear a little Coldplay here, a bit of Rhianna there (“Save Your Soul” has a definite Rhianna-esque eh-eh-eh moment) and even some Ed Sheeran troubadour confessionals at the guitar. But tagged at the end are the real bread and butter of Jamie’s craft, the heart and soul of Momentum, the live Abbey Road sessions. This is my Sunday evenings, kicking back with a glass of red in my hand. Old Cole Porter standard “Love For Sale” travels with a “The Way You Make Me Feel” (Michael Jackson) groove. “Pure Imagination” is a slow dance in the middle of the room. “Sad, Sad World” brings in the beautiful Laura Mvula and my hands involuntarily conduct an invisible emotion. When Jamie hits the “let it fall” notes I notice recoiling back, almost pushing away from the power. The most compelling music has a physical reaction.
I dare you. Play Mika. Listen to any song he has written, and I dare you not to sing it in your head all day. He writes glitterball melody hooks and hits the chorus like a pop marshmallow sledgehammer. He has been compared to Freddie Mercury in showmanship, but the best description I have read was in a BBC review of his latest album “Origin of Love” where they called him a one man Scissor Sisters. He won’t be boxed in. He plays his perky flamboyant persona to pop star perfection. Why he isn’t mentioned in the same breath as some of our biggest pop songwriters I’ll never know. “Origin of Love” has been thin on bona-fide radio hits, for which I blame the corporate programmers rather than the original source. Having said that, here comes the devilish Popular Song which samples a Broadway showtune (Wicked!) and delivers a sucker punch to bullies like only jazz hands could. Or a production number in Glee. Add to this particular witch’s brew teen Nickelodeon star Ariana Grande and a bubbly order of revenge is ready to be served in a popular song. Pun definitely intended.
The very first thing I want to offer you is an explanation. I Made You A Mixtape has been silent for better part of three months now. Oh, I have thought of you often. I have berated myself many times for having the inclination but not the occasion. I have felt the pull of the silver strings and the frustration of music slipping by. In the end my explanation is a very prosaic one. I have started another website with a friend of mine, and the setting up and creation of a whole online presence has been time-consuming, an all-embracing learning curve of a bonanza. And the whole time I felt a bit sheepish, like I was cheating on I Made You A Mixtape, even though I always knew I would return to my first love, music. So, Marthafied is now up and running and doing its own thing and I am finally back from the cyberspace trenches, so… whadda’ya say- shall we dance?
Imagine the tiled dance floor that lights up with different colours in time to the beat. Maybe there’s a disco ball glittering up above, and the smoke surrounding the floor is the tobacco kind, not the dry synthetic kind. That’s Nile Rodgers riffing on the guitar. The groove chugs along as you close your eyes and try to remember some Travolta moves, but in the end it doesn’t matter anyway, the rhythm is gonna move you. But then you wake up…hang on a second… what year is it?! It’s 2013 and Daft Punk are breaking Spotify streaming records with their chic disco ripple, their first single in eight years. They do have disco legend Nile Rodgers on guitar and the falsetto toned Pharrell Williams on vocals and according to some, also possibly the biggest (and most anticipated) album of the year in their hands. Wether it’s because the music landscape has missed these electro robots (Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter from Paris, France) or they are spinning one of the most successful promo campaigns in modern history, (a cookie crumb trail of teaser clips during SNL and Coachella which out buzzed the bands actually performing there) many are hailing Get Lucky the first big hit of Summer of 2013. Whilst most of the artists on the charts try to sound like it’s 1990s again, Daft Punk are playing with the past. Literally. Not only do they have the already mentioned Nile Rogers on board, they hired 80s session pros to fill in the musical puzzle. Y’know, the guys who were the slick machine behind Michael Jackson and his peers. In an interview De Homem-Christo said “The 70s and the 80s were the tastiest era for us.” For you and me both, brother, for you and me both.
When Alicia’s new album slips from the piano intro into the first track, Brand New Me, it does so like a trickling river. And the river keeps rippling over the rocks, defiantly but gently. It’s a whispered word meant to be heard. The ripple flows into a quiet storm of newfound self-possession, in a breath of an echo, a string cuts loose to a brand new kinda free. Long ago four young men said it best in three simple words; Let It Be. As far as feminist anthems go, it’s dignified and graceful, and at the very core of it, so beautiful and plaintive I don’t know what else to do with it but admire in wordless wonder. Co-written by Britain’s Pop Queen of the Year Emeli Sande (most albums sold in the UK in 2012 as well as prominent role in both, the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics) it sounds like Alicia has found a kindred spirit in Emeli. Both are stunning singers and sophisticated songwriters, rare specimens of class in a gawdy parade of chart princesses. Brand New Me plays a befitting opener for a new year and new promises, for the 52 weeks, 12 months and 365 days and ways to say, I love this song.